Tag Archives: raptor

The future of Rosy’s eyes

On the 25th Sept 2008, I woke up early and started the process of packing Rosy and Girl’s stuff into the car. At 8am, Mwanzia, Jonathan and I walked into the shed to catch Girl. She leapt from perch to perch frightened. Only 3 days previously she had escaped through the roof, bored and unhappy at being alone without Rosy. Luckily we were all outside at the time and we were able to drive after her. Weak with so little stamina from being cooped up in a small shed she was not fit enough to fly away. The small shed is twice the size of most exercise sheds in rehab centres, but still far too small to allow much muscle tone. Once she was trained and relatively tame and very fit. But these days she is wild. Now you have to catch her and that can be dangerous.

When she landed on the ground, we cornered her and threw a blanket over her head. I then injected her with Rompun, a very strong sedative. In 2 minutes we expected her to calm down and doze off. Half an hour later she was as vigorous as ever, and in a bad mood. I then entered alone and repeated the process. Another half hour past and I could not believe she was that strong. She weighs nearly twice as much as Rosy at some 12lbs. Finally, now late to get on the road, I used another drug on her and she went to sleep. Quickly I got Rosy in the far back, Mwanzia and Girl in the back seat and tore off for a tough 4.5 hour drive to Naivasha, dodging truculent traffic police waving us down on the road, and endless potholes. Three quarters of the way there, Girl woke up enough to throw Mwanzia around the back of the car. One foot in his chest and it would be all over for him, but her feet were like a puppies, incapable of gripping anything.

At Sarah Higgin’s house at Naivasha, we arrived frayed and exhausted. Rosy had behaved very well, although in thick traffic passing Matatus with loud ‘music’ blaring out, he did get nervous and try to struggle free. Blind but strong he sat it out patiently.

Immediately Sarah, Mike and I with a small entourage took the eagles down to the shed. Just finished and looking very fine under the shade of large yellow fever trees. We took the opportunity to get pictures of Sarah holding Girl, still a bit dozy from the drugs. We released her in familiar surroundings. The shed looked just like the old breeding shed in which she had been calm enough to raise families. Only the view outside was different. Not that much different, it has a sweeping view of wildebeest and giraffe too.
In 10 minutes I explained to Sarah the drugs, and the order in which they should be used. There really isn’t a strict order of use. You have some to lower the eye pressure, some to keep infection away and another to expand the pupil, one to inhibit protein. It started to rain, and I did not have headlights for the car, so I was on my way back in a very short time. I was, as can be imagined, very confused. This was the first time I had ever left Rosy or Girl in someone else’s care. Arriving home at dark with no headlights, I had 12 hrs to pack before leaving for UK and Ireland. I would be back in just over one week, and was grateful that I had these as a distraction.

Meanwhile the question remains as to whether or not Rosy will ever see. I have over the last few weeks accepted that he might not, and I haven’t considered putting him down. I sought confirmation in this from others as would most in my position. It is a weak thing to do. A few I had talked to did not understand why I would bother suggesting that he be kept alive when blind. I remembered an old colleague of mine who had a blind Red tailed Hawk, which he would show people and educate kids and appear on TV. He went on to do great things, and the hawk led some sort of valued life too. Mwanzia and Jonathan referred to Rosy and Samson. He is blind yet terribly powerful. When I last saw him in a shed with Sarah and others standing before him. He stood on one leg, preened and stared about him. Had he been sighted one or more of us would have been immediately hospitalized. But he had won over everyone there. Mwanzia has stayed on to be his minder. In that group the question of putting him down would not arise. Rosy was as alert and independent as most pets, and certainly better able to defend himself than almost all.

Sarah sent some pictures of the eyes to Dan Gradin and I read his comment back, thousands of miles away in a little upstairs room in my sister’s house in Canterbury. It was a very unfamiliar environment for me, and Rosy did not seem far away at all. Dan’s response was that he was surprised that Rosy could not see a thing despite the current condition of the eyes. Perhaps there was more damage; perhaps the retina was damaged too. I like to doubt this as I saw he had a good pupil reflex before and just after surgery. But he will have to be checked soon for this.

If Rosy requires it, additional surgery to remove the fibrin coat is possible. I am sure everyone agrees. If as it may turn out he needs a fresh new lens in each eye, then this too could be considered. At no point has he shown any sign of depression. If we have the technology to make him see, then we should try everything possible to make this happen. But I am now not his keeper and these options depend very much on just how long it will take for him to recover.
Laila and I hope to see Rosy and Girl as soon as we get back. Sarah and Mike have been incredibly hospitable, realizing the problem, and coming to the rescue of us all.

Preparing for the expedition

The final preparations are under way for the raptor expedition. Simon is moving Rosy and Girl to their new home in Naivasha today. He will be travelling to the UK on Friday to sort out a couple of things, after which he joins me in Ireland to help transport all the equipment back to Kenya. We will be travelling on 4th October, arriving in Nairobi on the following day. We have a busy first week, with three locations to visit, after which we will be going to a very remote location to release Mutt, a Bearded Vulture (Lammergeyer).

The first few months of the expedition will be spent in Kenya, where there is a huge diversity in habitat and, accordingly, raptor species. We hope to observe and photograph a large portion of the African species during this time. We will also be spending time in Ethiopia and possibly Tanzania before Christmas. In the New Year, we will be travelling south, after which we would like to spend some time in western and central Africa. We will interrupt our car expedition either in spring or in autumn of next year to catch the raptor migration through Israel.

The expedition is intended for data collection, as well as for material for the books. We hope to gather as much data as possible. We are in the process of trying to raise funds for this data collection so that we may be as thorough as possible. For example, it would be of great value to the exercise to be able to extend the trip to islands off mainland Africa, such as Madagascar. Finding funding is crucial to making that happen.

We will make every effort to keep this blog going regularly, if not daily. There will be times when we are away from any kind of Internet facility and for that, we are sorry. Sheryl Bottner has very kindly offered to help us with our Internet management while we are on the road. We will have a Facebook group going soon, as well as other networking tools. I hope you all enjoy following our adventure and feel free to participate by making comments, starting discussions, etc.

We’d like to thank everyone who has been so supportive throughout Rosy’s eye ordeal. News on his progress will follow soon. It has also been great to have everyone’s encouragement for this expedition. I hope it is successful and can contribute to the protection of raptors as well as to conservation more generally.

A stroke of luck! (Costa Rica comes to an end)

One evening we went out on the kayaks onto the lagoons to find crocodiles. I am true to the people of my home country, terrified of water because of crocodiles. I had one school friend get eaten, two or three near scrapes and we all had mothers that would tick us off if we dared to step into murky waters. To go out at night in a flimsy canoe to deliberately look for crocodiles goes against my better judgment. Little fish skimmed the surface of the water, and some even hopped into the kayak. Laila was busy trying to catch baby crocodiles and found a few that evaded her. One that she was about to put her hand on, suddenly snapped a fish in its jaws, literally less than an arms length away! For me, the best part was seeing large Fishing Bats repeatedly swoop into the light beam, skim the water and flash past my face. One hit the water and sent spray over my feet! I thought I saw one fly off with something in its feet. Like small fish eagles these guys hunt in very much the same style, but I cannot imagine how they can echo-locate something under the water!

We drove a number of nights down the road searching with a spotlight, looking for Jaguars, and more likely to see, an Ocelot, known to live nearby. We saw Opossums mostly, and once, during the day the mighty Tyra. It is a long tailed wolverine or honey badger, without the bent elbows. Instead it is cat-like, with longer limbs. It must be a fearsome predator. From a bridge we watched two large Otters playing and fishing in a river next to a Tiger heron. On one trip we saw the tiny Pearl Kite, a diminutive and stocky version of the Black Shouldered Kite. We saw one of these too. Laila pointed out that it did not have black shoulders, and this remains a mystery.

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Pearl Kite (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

The second most wanted raptor on my list under the Harpy Eagle and even above the OBF, was the Laughing Falcon. I have old pictures of it. It looks like a true falcon, but in a stumpy wing long tail body of an accipiter. It seems like a missing link between the very odd Caracaras and true falcons like the Peregrine. I had assumed it to be small. One evening we heard a Ha Ha…Ha Ha….Ha Ha, shouted out from the forest near Terrapin. The same day Jim Tamarack turned up and said that this could be none other than the Laughing Falcon! Next morning it called again at first light, with the growling Howler Monkeys, and I got a thick ear from Laila for not having dashed off to go find it. The falcon was taking on a new meaning to my list of priorities. It was around to be sure, but it was most likely sitting deep in the forest canopy hidden most of the day. I resigned myself to never finding it especially as it never called after 5.30AM, or before nightfall.

The White Hawk is another species that Laila had seen “hanging out” with foraging monkeys. I had not seen this either. While lying in the hammock I heard an unfamiliar, but buteo-like mewing and walked out to see two White Hawks sailing around in the valley behind. I savored the moment and did not bother to race for the camera. I’d remember this without resorting to digital memory.

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White Hawk (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

The holiday was coming rapidly to its close. I had to think now about the future, which was pretty grim. Back home I had left things in the balance. This holiday had given me the time I needed to make a few painful life choices. I was in this reflective mood as I was being driven to the airport for my flight out. Now the chances of seeing what remained on my wish list were nil, when Laila stopped the car and grabbed the binoculars. Ha! A Laughing Falcon! In an open field, sitting in a lonely tree sat a big headed and large falcon. I walked over to take pictures. It was that simple.

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Laughing Falcon

My trip to Costa Rica (Part 1)

The night I arrived in Costa Rica, it poured with rain. I stood on a balcony outside my hotel room in San Jose, overlooking a small street and could only see vague details through the torrent. It pounded down on the roof till 3am, yet the electricity stayed on. As soon as it stopped, I could hear motorbikes speed through the city as if nothing had happened. Obviously these guys are used to it, for back home this would have brought things to a standstill.

The next morning, still confused with jet lag, I sat in a small plane on my way to the Osa Peninsula. I stared out at the mountains and forests beneath. The orderly arrangement of towns, farms and homesteads seemed in contrast to the staggering amount of forest surrounding them. I had learned back home to associate indigenous forests with ragged human ‘informal’ settlement and was equally surprised to see undisturbed lagoons and wandering rivers fringing the beaches and scattered pristine forested islands stood off-shore.

As always, I could not but make comparisons with Kenya, now sadly very different to what I saw beneath. I could see huge swathes of cleared forests, old farmlands and open glades now turned into oil palm plantations. This well sold “environmentally-friendly solution” to fueling the ever growing demand for fuel is obviously not-so-eco-friendly on the ground. Even so, this medium sized country with some 25-30% of the forest under protection did not from this altitude look to be facing the same critical problems as much of Africa. It is the size of Switzerland and has no armed forces. Like Kenya, it has freezing highland moorlands, sloping down cool forests to hot humid coastal rainforests. From this height, it was better than I had expected and I knew that I was going to enjoy Costa Rica. I had few expectations and had earlier written that I would be happy just seeing some frogs. Forests are tough places to find wildlife on the same scale as the savannahs. Predictably, species would be numerous even if their density was small or that they were difficult to see.

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Spider Monkey (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

Laila picked me up in Puerto Jimenez, a small town of four streets on the southern shore of the Osa Peninsula. Laila, a good friend and fellow raptor enthusiast with a contagious enthusiasm for all wildlife, had asked if I wanted to ‘check out’ the Neo-tropics. She had been working on monitoring monkeys there and I had not much to do at home and was drifting between jobs. I jumped at the opportunity. I had long dreamed of the peculiar wildlife and raptors of the region and I secretly hoped to see the Jaguars, Harpy Eagles and Tapirs of the South/Central American jungle.

In Puerto Jimenez, I met Jim Tamarack who is a zoologist, but also teaches baseball to school kids just down the road from me back home in Kenya. Guido Sabario, manager of the Osa Biodiversity Centre, also formed part of the welcome party. Just before getting into the car, Laila pointed out both the Turkey and Black Vulture above the airfield. As we sat and had lunch in town, I got more familiar with the differences between these two species as they cruised by. Scarlet Macaws made a sudden and noisy appearance! On the way to Carate where I would be spending the next three weeks, Laila and Jim stabbed fingers in the air or at the top of trees and pointed out Road-side Hawks, Yellow Headed Caracara, Crested Caracara, Black Hawk, Jesus Christ Lizards (the dinosaur type lizard that dashes across the water on its hind legs), and yet more vultures.

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Jesus Christ Lizard (Photo by Laila Bahaa-el-din)

We past immediately out of the town into a mixture of fincas (ranches) rich in trees of indigenous and exotic variety, palms and bananas. We saw huge, well-fed cattle with long droopy ears, and men on horseback followed by small runty dogs. We drove through old planted avenues of figs and cashew nuts through which one could just see the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. I was shown Panama, distant hills across the ocean, before my orientation was so confused by the circumnavigation of the peninsular which led us through large dark tunnels of primary forests. These massive stands of gigantic trees at first cut across the road in long fingers flowing down the mountain sides inland toward the sea. The route would suddenly change from open ranch land to dense forest. It would have been easy to have overlooked secondary forest had it not been pointed out. But it is separated due to its scraggily nature and thin trunks topped with big broad leaves (as opposed to tiny leaves of primary growth).

The trip covered 47 kilometers and I had already seen more birds of prey per kilometer than in most of East Africa, and certainly more forest. True to expectation, raptors were easily observed in the human modified ranches, not in the indigenous forests. A less acute observer would conclude that human interference is good for wildlife, had they not appreciated the difficulty in seeing things in primary forest.

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Roadside Hawk

The Great Expedition

Being slow-breeders and top-end predators, birds of prey are highly vulnerable to any persecution or change in their habitat and environment. These traits also make them good indicators of overall ecosystem health. Not enough is known about birds of prey at the expert level, or by the world at large. This has led us to devise a plan that would take us on an Africa-wide adventure which we are hoping you will join us on. It will involve travelling, mostly by car, through Africa, researching birds of prey and photographing them for what will ultimately lead to some books that will serve to raise awareness and increase knowledge of these sensitive animals.

We are in the process of making preparations for the trip, which include buying the necessary equipment, kitting out the car, and sorting out all the administration that such a big project entails. Sadly, it also means that Simon must find temporary homes for his birds. Once on the road, probably around mid-to-late-September, we hope to give you daily updates on the places we go, the people we meet and, most importantly, our wildlife experiences.

Our trip will include:
1. Doing a road count of the raptors as we travel through the continent.
2. Regularly updating a blog, Facebook group and MySpace page in order to keep you in-the-know.
3. Helping local raptor specialists with research as we move along.
4. Observing and photographing the birds with the overall goal of producing a comprehensive publication on all the raptor species of Africa.

We are looking for funding in the form of grants or any such scheme to support the expedition. Do not hesitate at any time to contact us with ideas and suggestions at [email protected]

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Volunteering with Simon

Thank you so much to those who have generously donated to Rosy. The funds will go towards getting him the care that he needs to make a full recovery. Any further donations over the coming weeks will also be used to this end. While Simon is rushing around Nairobi trying to sort out Rosy’s operation, let me introduce myself…

I first met Simon when I volunteered to work with him in Athi River, helping him to look after the birds. I suppose I shouldn’t really mention the fact that he failed to turn up at Nairobi airport to pick me up as promised due to a slight run-in with the police (expired insurance). And perhaps it should remain unsaid that, that same day, he had managed to annoy quite a few people by pulling out some gum trees (“damn exotics”).

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Simon with Duchess, who is posturing because I am there.

However, his unusual character aside, he did make sure I was picked up at the airport despite his “arrest,” and also made sure that not one moment of my stay with him was boring. Incidents that come to mind include hiding up a tree from a charging buffalo, almost backing the jeep into a bull elephant (this one was my doing), lessons in paragliding and many more. If he had not crashed his aeroplane earlier, he assures me I would have learned to fly as well.

The highlights were not the brushes with danger, though those were fun. The best moments were the times with the birds. I remember all too clearly the words that Simon said to me on my first day with him: “One mistake, and the bird could die.” Tim, a young injured Lanner Falcon, had just been brought to Simon and was perched in his living room. As we were introduced, Simon informed me that I would be training Tim, getting him ready to be released back to the wild. I was terrified that I would make that fatal mistake. But from the first time that Tim sat on my fist, I was hooked. And by the time I saw him flying free, watching him as he made his first attempts at catching his own prey, there was no going back.

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Flying Tim